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Burma shies from its nuclear protocol responsibilities again

Burma signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996 but has not ratified it (PHOTO: wikicommons)

Anniversaries come and go.  Another one has been passed in Burma –  it’s over one year since Burma signed the Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  In September 2013 Burma signed this agreement, which would have opened its nuclear facilities to full inspection by the IAEA.  The move was greeted with great fanfare.  The signing was hailed as proof that Burma was ready at last to cooperate in opening its nuclear activities to inspection. In 1995 Burma signed an agreement with the IAEA that it had nothing to declare about nuclear activities. So from 1995 to 2013 the IAEA performed no nuclear safeguards inspections.

The Additional Protocol vacates the old claim that Burma had nothing to declare; Burma would have to agree to inspections of declared activity as well as answer questions about suspicious activities. But none of this takes effect until Burma ratifies the new Additional Protocol. Fourteen months later, this still has not happened. And inspections are still on hold. The Burmese representative to the IAEA obliquely referred to this failure in September 2014, on the first anniversary of the signing.  His convoluted explanation was:

It gives me great pleasure to recall that during the 57th General Conference [of the IAEA] meeting in Vienna, Myanmar signed the Additional Protocol to IAEA safeguards-agreement. Ongoing efforts are intensified to ratify this Additional Protocol.  Myanmar, for its part, has taken further steps to strengthen its national legal framework and setup national implementation team for State System of Accounting and Control of Nuclear materials.

In other words, ratification is still pending, no inspections have taken place, and suspicious activities have not been resolved. The one action that can be quantified is that there will be a system for accounting for nuclear materials that Burma has denied having since 1995. Once the new Additional Protocol is finally ratified, Burma simply needs to restate that it has no nuclear materials and there will be no basis for verification inspections. IAEA reports on its website that it has provided training in nuclear material accountancy for a country that has declared it has no nuclear materials. But there are no signs of aggressive negotiations to visit all the sites where suspicious activities have taken place.  The process of building up a nuclear accountancy department in Myanmar can take years and can result in exactly no progress. In the meantime, Burma has been praised for signing the document and critics have turned away, glad to forget nuclear allegations and to move on to other problems.

Burma has a proven track record in this regard. It has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention back in 1993 and not gotten around to ratification. Similarly, Burma signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons in Convention in 1972, but has not ratified. And in the nuclear field, Burma signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996 but has not ratified it. Not that anyone thinks Burma is going to test a nuclear bomb, simply that Burma has a long history of silencing criticism by signing agreements that it then fails to ratify.

Other ASEAN member states are also very slow to ratify the treaties they sign. With respect to IAEA’s Additional Protocol, the Philippines signed but took over 12 years to ratify. Malaysia and Thailand are still pondering ratifying their signatures after nine years. Significantly, Burma, Malaysia and Thailand all signed their intent to adhere to the Additional Protocol in the month of September, at the time of the IAEA General Conference. This is a time when bold moves will be noticed and be accompanied by photo opportunities and news releases coincident with that important event. But when the cameras are put away, good intentions disappear.

A significant exception to this process is India. In July 2014, India was identified as a state that had not followed through on its pledge to ratify the Additional Protocol it signed in 2009. India is in a special situation, outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty but possessing nuclear weapons. In the interest of removing trade sanctions and possibly joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group, India was shamed into quickly ratifying the treaty. India is a special case, however. Ratification is done by the executive and not the legislature, so it requires only a simple stroke of the pen. And India had just elected a new government that needs nuclear trade and realised the non-ratification of the Additional Protocol was a tremendous barrier.

Burma is a master of misdirection, giving the political world meaningless concessions that it does not intend to ratify. It is unfortunate that in the political world this usually works. Bureaucracies excel at making gestures and then quietly letting the solution languish until all is forgotten. The IAEA, ASEAN, OPCW and other interested communities need to maintain pressure on Burma to follow through on its promise to ratify. Otherwise more and more anniversaries will come and go with no progress.


Robert Kelley is a former Los Alamos weapons scientist, and was an IAEA director from 1992 to 1993, and again from 2001 to 2005. He has conducted weapons inspections in Libya, Iraq, and South Africa, and compliance inspections in Egypt, Turkey, South Korea, Taiwan, Syria, Tanzania, Pakistan, India and Congo, among others.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.